Users unite to keep MPE alive

A group of Hewlett-Packard Co. users and independent consultants is trying to keep the HP e3000’s aging MPE operating system alive after HP ends its support in 2006.

The group, OpenMPE Inc., has reached an agreement in principle with HP on a key aspect of the MPE survival plan: permission to create an emulator that would enable the operating system to be used on other HP hardware.

But the effort faces a dilemma. Third parties such as HP’s channel partners and consulting firms that may develop an emulator don’t know if there’s enough commercial demand to justify the investment. Potential users who are preparing migration plans, meanwhile, say they need to know soon whether an emulator is actually coming.

The HP e3000 installed base, which analysts estimate is in the range of 10,000 to 20,000 users, typically runs mission-critical applications such as reservations systems. The base is a who’s who of large corporate users that, according to OpenMPE, includes American Airlines Inc., Chase Manhattan Bank USA, Exxon Mobil Corp. and Ford Motor Co. And many of those users are getting antsy.

“It’s still vaporware,” said Jim Haeseker, manager of technical operations at General Chemical Corp. in Parsippany, N.J. Haeseker, who is involved in the OpenMPE effort, said that although an emulator could be developed at some point, he’s not planning on it for his e3000 mission-critical applications, such as order processing. But, he added, “if an emulator were available now, that might be a different story.”

Similarly, Eric Bender, coordinator of computer services at John Abbott College in St. Anne De Bellevue, Quebec, said he won’t consider an emulator in his migration planning unless he’s convinced it will be built.

“Time is running out,” said Bender, who doesn’t want to be left with unsupported hardware past the 2006 deadline. He wants his migration plan to be ready by next June.

Third-party vendors remain noncommittal. “No one knows how many customers will be willing to pay for it,” said Gavin Scott, vice-president of San Jose-based Allegro Consultants Inc., which is considering building an emulator. He estimates that it would cost US$1 million to US$2 million to develop one, with licensing fees likely to run US$5,000 to US$10,000. The emulator’s main competition will be previously owned e3000s, he said.

If third-party vendors balk at building an emulator, OpenMPE may fund it, said Jonathan Backus, an HP e3000 consultant and chairman of the Hagerstown, Md.-based user group.

“Does it make more sense for the community to pool its financial resources together under the umbrella of OpenMPE and then have a single PA-RISC emulator created that is then owned by the community?” asked Backus. That remains an open question for the group, he said.

David Wilde, HP’s e3000 business manager, said HP has no current plans to contribute funds to the development of an emulator. But he said the company is in discussions with emulator developers “to understand what resources would be helpful as they consider their business case.”

OpenMPE is also urging HP to approve a limited, open-source model for MPE that would help users obtain bug fixes and operating system enhancements but allow only a select group of OpenMPE members to make changes to the source code.

However, HP is reluctant to take an open-source approach, according to Wilde. The company prefers instead to allow selected business partners to make enhancements to the code.

Regardless of the outcome of that debate, Wilde said HP is eager to hear from e3000 users and incorporate their feedback in its planning.